By Mike Steely

Deborah Fisher, Director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, spoke Friday at a “Sunshine Week” event sponsored by the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists. She brought local news media members and guests up to date on state legislature bills that involve public access to information and answered questions from the audience.

Sunshine Week is set aside nationally as a time to recognize the public and the press’s efforts to open government meetings, hearings and activities to everyone. WBIR’s Martha Jennings introduced Fisher and noted several people in the audience, including News-Sentinel Editor Jack McElroy, who hosted the gathering.

Fisher said that a recent ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court restricts access to police files prior to trials and that things like body and police car cameras can only be made available to the defense attorneys in cases. She also said thanked Mayors Tim Burchett and Madeline Rogero for their support and both mayors issued proclamations proclaiming last week “Sunshine Week.”

She said that recent legislation introduced in the state by Representative Bill Dunn and Senator Richard Briggs will help the public get access to public records. She also mentioned that the Office of Public Records Council and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government act as “watchdogs” for public access to records, minutes, and evidence.

In speaking about government meetings she noted that “agendas do not clearly indicate matters” at many meetings and that all pre-meetings must be open to the public and the press.

Fisher said that an attempt recently to increase fees for records statewide has been defeated after a public outcry against paying higher rates.

She said that many county governments, including some school boards, reject emailed requests for records and require an applicant to appear and make the request.

“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” she said. She also mentioned that Governor Haslam’s initial attempt to outsource parts of state government was done in confidence.